Nineteenth-Century Lights: Historic Images of American Lighthouses
By J. Candace Clifford ‘83
January 1, 2001
In 1800 the United States had 26 lighthouses. At the end of the century that number had increased to over 650. As the country expanded, the building of new lighthouses followed the nation's shipping interests--down the Atlantic coast, up the Hudson River and along Lake Champlain, into the Chesapeake Bay, along the Gulf Coast, around the Great Lakes, and finally up the entire length of the Pacific coast.
As the number of lighthouses grew, the architectural styles of the stations and the technology that lit them changed. Rubblestone and wood were supplemented by cut stone and brick. Tall, heavy towers sunk in the soft sands of the Chesapeake and Gulf Coast gave way to lightweight offshore screwpiles supporting simple wooden dwellings with a lantern on the roof.
By mid-century, sailing ships were being replaced by steamships; chandeliers of whale and lard oil lamps in front of reflectors were replaced by Fresnel lenses that magnified the light. Cast iron was introduced as a light and movable building material. Fog bells previously rung by hand were mechanized by clockworks and many later replaced with steam-operated fog signals. In the 1880s oil lamps gave way to kerosene; oil houses were added to light stations to protect the volatile fuel. Finally, the introduction of electricity greatly simplified the keeper's duties.
These changes are reflected in the nineteenth century photos collected here. The tall towers of New England contrast with the screwpiles built on the Chesapeake Bay. Ice destroyed these and led to the sinking of heavy caisson bases. Major engineering challenges are illustrated with the waveswept towers on Minots Ledge, Massachusetts; Spectacle Reef, Michigan; and St.George Reef, California. Lantern shapes changed to accommodate the Fresnel lens. Lighthouse architects housed keepers in fortresses, Stick-style mansions, miniature boxes on offshore ledges, and a dozen other styles pleasing to the eye.
The charm and surprising diversity of lighthouses are captured in these historic photographs, illuminating an important chapter in our rich maritime history.
Jacket and cover design by Dean Bornstein ‘84. Candace Clifford is coordinator of lighthouse preservation activities for the National Park Service.